Volume 39 - Issue 2
Projection Atheism: Why Reductionist Accounts of Humanity Can Lead to Reductionist Accounts of GodBy Michael J. Ovey
We often associate atheism with a very high, indeed arrogant, view of what a human being is. Thus, sometimes God is denied because his existence would threaten the overwhelmingly important value of human freedom. So argues nineteenth-century Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. Sometimes God is denied because a human being argues that his own exacting criteria of proof have not been satisfied and since he is self-evidently so intelligent that this indicates God is not there.
We often associate atheism with a very high, indeed arrogant, view of what a human being is. Thus, sometimes God is denied because his existence would threaten the overwhelmingly important value of human freedom. So argues nineteenth-century Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. Sometimes God is denied because a human being argues that his own exacting criteria of proof have not been satisfied and since he is self-evidently so intelligent that this indicates God is not there. Thus asserts twentieth-century British philosopher Bertrand Russell.
But what happens to God if we have a very low view of what a human being is?
That’s the question I want to explore in this article. There are two background considerations here. First, there is John Calvin’s observation that the doctrine of humanity and the doctrine of God are intimately related. Second, there is Ludwig Feuerbach’s idea that religion is a projection of our ideals. Taken together, I want to argue that if one thinks a human being is really nothing, this readily leads to atheism.
Let me explain. Calvin famously opens his Institutes with the observation that who we think we are and who we think God is are tied very closely together (Institutes I.1.1). Calvin notes that this can work inversely: when we see how great God truly is, this engenders humility in us, as we compare his perfection and infinity to our imperfection and finitude. He is great, and we are small. Similarly, if we have a very high view of ourselves, then we may be inclined to despise his goodness and our dependence on him. We are great, so he is not so great. A good example is Immanuel Kant’s 1784 claim about the Enlightenment that we humans are ‘mature’ and therefore do not need to be told by God what to do. Since we are mature, we can work it out for ourselves, and authoritative revelation is superfluous and, indeed, offensive since it treats us like children.
Calvin seems to me quite right, not least because one can see, I think, this inverse relationship at work in Gen 3 when Adam and Eve both seek to aggrandise themselves and belittle God. Equally, one can see this inverse relationship at work in that particular species of Western modernism which has a vastly inflated view of humanity and can accordingly reduce room for God to the point that one ends up with a worldview that has no space for God at all, namely, atheism.
However, the relationship between the doctrine of God and the doctrine of humanity is not just inverse. There can be a directly proportional relationship too, whereby an appropriately high view of humanity leads to a high view of God and an inappropriately low view of humanity leads to a low view of God. This is where Ludwig Feuerbach’s projection idea comes in. Feuerbach’s basic idea was that God is a projection of the highest human ideals. Thus, we have ideas of justice and goodness and charity, and we project them in their perfection onto God.
Now, there’s a good deal of truth in Feuerbach’s idea in this sense: he is describing one of the ways idolatry works. We attribute to God, or to our gods, the ideals we want to be true. A moment’s reflection, of course, indicates that Feuerbach mistakes ‘some’ for ‘all’. Just because some religions are idolatrous projections, it does not follow that all are. After all, a husband may idealise his wife, or a wife her husband, and blindly attribute matrimonial perfection to them; the mere fact the attribution onto the spouse is a mistaken projection does not entail that the spouse does not exist. And, one should add, Feuerbach bypasses the incarnation of Jesus, which is never good.
That said, Feuerbach’s case is still valuable as an observation about idolatry. However, we can take Feuerbach further. What happens when we do not have high ideals about humanity, but low ones? Feuerbach’s model predicts, of course, that God will be an idealisation of these low values (cruelty, exploitation, etc.). But going still further, what happens when we have not just low values among humanity but no value for humans at all?
By talking about no values for humans at all, I’m moving to that area of discussion which sees humans as ‘nothing but’ conglomerations of organic material governed ultimately by strictly natural, purposeless processes. In this worldview, there may be random occurrences but no personal, intentional intervention from outside the system. Humans are ‘nothing but’ these temporary self-organising bundles of stuff. The point is often made that this apparently entails that humans have no value and that one of the great inconsistencies of ‘naturalist’ writers like Richard Dawkins is the lack of any consistent basis for upholding human value in an objective sense.
But what intrigues me is the impact this doctrine of humanity will have on a doctrine of God. Just as Kant’s idea of human maturity renders the speaking God superfluous, doesn’t the idea of zero-value humanity lead to a zero-value God? After all, if I have denied my own human value by saying my rationality and conscience and soul just boil down to chemical events, is it not easy to project this onto God and deny he has value too? In essence, as I deny my own humanity, I can project this denial onto God too. Descartes notably argued from his own existence to the existence of God: perhaps we have a reverse-Descartes situation in which we project from our own non-existence to the non-existence of God.
Why does this matter? Apologetically, it makes me think about atheism from the perspective of it sometimes being an extreme version of Feuerbach’s projection theory of idolatry. It also reminds me of the need sometimes to look at someone’s doctrine of who a human being is before I get to discussing who God is with them. I must ask not just who they think God is, but who they think they are. More generally, I am reminded of the consequences of nihilistic worldviews, because in many ways this is an atheism born of nihilist views of humanity.
Pastorally, one is naturally inclined to ask why would adopt this zero-value view of humanity anyway. Is it purely opportunistic, a good way of freeing oneself because one says there are no values anywhere? After all, if I have a zero-value account of humanity, this radically frees me from needing to value others, and that naturally can be quite convenient. Moreover, we have to see this zero-value account of humanity in the light of Jesus’s Incarnation. Notably, a zero-value view of humanity should include a zero-value for Jesus. And that can be quite convenient too. In fact, is it worth having a zero-value account of humanity precisely as a strategy for applying zero-value to Jesus too?
Or, paradoxically, does the zero-value view of humanity connect with a subtle self-loathing in which human disordered self-love has become so warped that it has become self-harming? Further, this puts the presentation of the gospel in a new light too. We have rightly spoken of God saving by grace alone. Part of the tragedy of projection atheism is that it is not just saying there is no God to save; it is also saying there is no ‘me’ to save in the first place. Part of our proclamation problem is not just proclaiming forgiveness of sins to a culture that does not believe there is such a thing as sin, but proclaiming it to a culture that at points has doubts about whether there is even a person there to sin at all.
There is, perhaps, an alluring freedom here, the kind of freedom that comes when some-one renounces their identity and lives in another country, untouched by their old obligations. But this is also very close to despair.
Let me close with another connection. So far we have been talking about projecting from humanity. Greg Beale also argues that in idolatry there is the reverse dynamic—that we become what we worship.1 This opens up a tragic vicious circle: my zero-value account of humanity can encourage projection atheism. And my atheism can reinforce my zero-value account of humanity. Nietzsche quipped that God is dead and that we have killed him. He asked how we could be worthy of this. One might also ask whether our ‘killing’ of God does not also kill us.
 G. K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (Downers Grove: IVP, 2008).
Michael J. Ovey
Mike Ovey is principal of Oak Hill College in London and consulting editor of Themelios.
Other Articles in this Issue
PASTORAL PENSÉES: Laboring in Hopeless Hope: Encouragement for Christians from Ecclesiastesby Eric Ortlund
The book of Ecclesiastes diagnoses humanity’s tendency to link the value of human life with permanent accomplishment in our work...
In the current fascination of younger evangelicals with the ethos of both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, John Henry Newman (1801–1890) has become something of a ‘poster child’...
That Their Souls May Be Saved: The Theology and Practice of Jonathan Edwards on Church Disciplineby Jeremy M. Kimble
A great deal of research has been done on the life and theology of Jonathan Edwards...
This article surveys the state of Edwards studies today, focusing particularly on its philosophical theologians who have zeroed in on Edwards’s doctrine of God...
This article critically examines Jonathan Edwards’s doctrine of the Trinity with a particular focus upon his understanding of the person of the Holy Spirit...